House Democrats are pressuring cable TV providers and online streaming companies to purge conservative media outlets from their platforms or at the very least do more to censor content they deem fake and misleading.
They are targeting Fox News Channel, One America News Network and Newsmax by casting them as purveyors of lies and conspiracy theories that have ripped apart the nation, downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and helped give rise to the Jan. 6 rampage at the U.S. Capitol.
Constitutional scholars say these Democrats are treading on dangerous authoritarian ground.
Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, both California Democrats, blasted off a letter this week to major cable providers such as Comcast, Verizon and Cox and to digital companies including Roku, Apple and Hulu. The letters asked the companies what they have done to prevent misinformation and lies from being aired on their platforms.
“What steps did you take prior to, on and following the Nov. 3, 2020, elections and the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks to monitor, respond to and reduce the spread of disinformation, including encouragement or incitement of violence by channels your company disseminates to millions of Americans?” the letter said.
“Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, OANN and Newsmax on your platform both now and beyond the renewal date?” they wrote. “If so, why?”
Liberal-leanings outlets were given a pass.
Ms. Eshoo and Mr. McNerney are senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is set to hold a hearing Wednesday called “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media.”
The committee is set to hear testimony from former CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien; Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University; Kristin Danielle Urquiza, founder of Marked by COVID; and Jonathan Turley, professor at The George Washington University Law School.
Mr. Turley told The Washington Times on Tuesday that he will urge committee members not to proceed down the slippery slope of censoring free speech and called the Democrats’ letter concerning.
“From the perspective of free speech and the free press, the letter is not just chilling; it is positively glacial,” Mr. Turley said. “This is an example of members trying to do indirectly what they cannot do directly.
“Congress could never bar the airing of networks like Fox News under the First Amendment,” he said. “The fact that they are attempting to use private companies to engage in censorship does not lessen the threat to free speech.”
The focus is on cable companies and streaming providers because of growing concerns that the media landscape has devolved into a Wild West of disinformation, lies and crackpot ideas that must be reined in.
The attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob added to Democrats’ sense of urgency that these companies should be held accountable, though it remains to be seen what they plan to do beyond public shaming.
Republicans have been reluctant to join the effort.
In previous hearings on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers have warned against limiting free speech and focused much of their attention on whether social media giants have been more willing to crack down on conservative content.
Democrats say right-wing networks provided a safe haven for President Trump and his allies to spew lies, giving viewers false impressions about the coronavirus and the results of the 2020 election.
“Right-wing media outlets, like Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News all aired misinformation about the November 2020 elections,” the California Democrats wrote in their letter. “These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic.”
Fox called the effort a “chilling transgression of the free speech rights that every media outlet in this country enjoys.”
“As the most watched cable news channel throughout 2020, FOX News Media provided millions of Americans with in-depth reporting, breaking news coverage and clear opinion,” the network said. “For individual members of Congress to highlight political speech they do not like and demand cable distributors engage in viewpoint discrimination sets a terrible precedent.”
Newsmax accused Democrats of waging war on the First Amendment.
“The House Democrats’ attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights should send chills down the spines of all Americans,” the network said in a statement. “Newsmax reported fairly and accurately on allegations and claims made by both sides during the recent election contest.
“We did not see that same balanced coverage when CNN and MSNBC pushed for years the Russian collusion hoax, airing numerous claims and interviews with Democrat leaders that turned out to be patently false,” Newsmax said.
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